Coming back to New Orleans after a long absence is like getting reacquainted with an old friend--a vibrant, stylish, irreverent, food-loving, foot-stomping, good-times-rolling friend.
From the unapologetic bawdiness of Bourbon Street to the elegant grace of Royal, the French Quarter packs amazing variety into a single neighborhood.
For our first trip back, we decided to try one of the smaller, older hotels in the Quarter, Maison Dupuy, where we found a comfy room, a pretty courtyard pool, and an incredibly friendly staff at a great price. As a bonus, the hotel's on Toulouse, so a left turn out of the lobby will take you straight into the French Quarter.
Because escaping the hustle-bustle of the workaday world is part of any vacation for us, Dave and I like to stay in the Quarter, park the car, grab a good street map, and vacation on foot or by cab. That's definitely the way to go in New Orleans while areas outside the Quarter continue to rebuild. You can also catch a flight or take Amtrak and cab your way to Big Easy fun.
After settling in, we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Bourbon Street. The sing-along at Pat O'Brien's Bar is in full swing again, and it's only a matter of time before somebody requests "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille." The wrought iron balconies on Royal drip with ferns and flowers, a sight so amazing that even the most focused shopper has to tear herself away from the art and antiques long enough to take it in.
Then there's the food. Mercy. Emeril's, Brennan's, Bacco, Antoine's, Arnaud's, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Commander's Palace, Galatoire's--the French Quarter's and Garden District's classic restaurants are serving up some of the most incredible dining experiences imaginable. Even the down-home food in New Orleans is fabulous. Locals and tourists alike flock to Central Grocery Company, home of the original muffuletta, and Mother's, where the jambalaya is worth going up a jean size.
Dave and I found a new favorite, Irene's Cuisine, on St. Philip. The Filet Mediterranean ($32-$33) and the Chicken Rose Marino ($18)--plus everything on the dessert menu--were among our favorites. Irene's is the perfect combination: fine food in an elegant setting that makes dinner an event, yet the restaurant isn't the least bit pretentious or stuffy.
Executive chef Nicholas Scalco learned the ropes by washing dishes and waiting tables for his mom, "Miss Irene" DiPietro. After finishing culinary school, he went to Italy to study. "When I got back, my mom said, 'Now forget everything they told you--I'll show you how to do it my way,' " Nicholas said with a grin.
We thanked the folks at Irene's and headed back to our hotel, stopping along the way to check out places we'd like to try on our next visit. Definitely Hotel Royal, a small, tucked-away inn that we stumbled onto. My friend Mark loves Hotel Provincial, so that's on our list too. Wish we'd had more time for Café Du Monde and a swamp tour and the zoo and aquarium, and a ride on the steamboat Natchez and….
Louis Armstrong International Airport is open, with 109 daily flights for 10 different airlines. Amtrak makes daily runs, including the City of New Orleans and the Crescent, and the ports have reopened to cruise traffic. Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean are back, and more are coming.